Monday, November 11, 2019

In 1919 Houdini was tied to a cannon for veterans (twice)


In England in 1911 Houdini accepted a challenge in which he was tied to the mouth of a cannon with a lit fuse. While no photos of this escape have ever surfaced, the cannon challenge is iconic enough to have been depicted in two Houdini biopics. Most biographies record this as being the only time Houdini ever did this stunt. But I recently discovered that he repeated the cannon challenge in Los Angeles in 1919...twice!

The first occurred on April 26, 1919, just a few days after Houdini arrived in the city to begin work on The Grim Game. Houdini was part of a troupe of Famous Players-Lasky artists who gave a charity performance at the "Victory ship" in downtown's Pershing Square. This was part of a nationwide effort to raise funds for The Victory Liberty Loan, a drive to help returning soldiers from World War I. Below is an ad for the campaign.


This ad is pretty wild and emblematic of the drive. The Liberty Loan was an aggressive campaign that was not above shaming people into donating. Newspapers actually printed the names of wealthy or prominent citizens who had not contributed as "Liberty Loan Slackers" (a "slacker" was a draft dodger). But this particular ad is notable on that it mentions the Lasky Stars and advertises Houdini's escape:


Below are details of the upcoming escape as reported in the Los Angeles Herald on April 25, 1919:


What exactly was the Victory ship? Try as I might, I could not find any photos of it. But from a later newspaper account about its dismantling, I'm assuming it was a temporary stage set up in Pershing Square made to resemble a battleship perhaps?

A few weeks later, the Lasky stars were back at the Victory ship, including Houdini's future Terror Island co-star Lila Lee. Houdini repeated his cannon challenge, as reported in the May 10, 1919 Los Angeles Herald:


Unfortunately, I couldn't find any photos or news accounts of how either challenge played out. Presumably he made it! But many stars performed at the Victory ship, including Charlie Chaplin, and I could find no account of what they did either. I believe it would have been considered bad form to use a charity event to promote oneself. This was about veterans, and even Houdini was restrained. But that leaves us to only guess what this escape looked like.

At the top of this post is an illustration of Houdini tied to a cannon which is the only depiction of the challenge I've ever seen. (This comes from The Original Houdini Scrapbook by Walter B. Gibson.) The illustration appears to be based on the 1911 escape, which is well described. But this could also have been how he was restrained in 1919. Unless...

Below is a photo of Houdini tied to the wheel of a cannon. Could this have been taken at the Victory ship? This is Houdini in 1919, and the cannon he is roped to is clearly a piece of World War I ordinance. While this isn't how the challenge was advertised, the cannon may have been too large for him to be tied to the mouth, so maybe this is how he actually did the escape? Or this photo was taken after the fact. The edifice behind him does appear to be some sort of temporary structure which could be the Victory ship.


When I first uncovered these two challenges, I had hoped to do what I did for his 1915 suspended straitjacket and his 1923 Ambassador Pool escape. But I came up short in my research. So I'm offering up what I have in the hopes it will unlock more info. But at least we now know that it happened. Houdini was tied to a cannon in Los Angeles' Pershing Square in 1919...twice!

Site of Houdini's escape today.

Honoring all who have served on this Veterans Day.

UPDATE: Turns out an account of this escape (one of them, at least) appears in The Grim Game pressbook. Thanks to Joe Notaro.


UPDATE 2: Our great friend Bill Mullins has come through with a photo of the Victory Ship! As suspected, it's a stage made to look like a ship. This is from the May 3, 1919 Los Angeles Times.

Click to enlarge.

Related:

18 comments:

  1. Lashed to the mouth of a cannon always sounded wonky to me. There's no place to tie the ropes at the mouth's edge. I also doubt the cannon was actually lit with a ball inside. It could have exploded prematurely. A risk HH would never take.

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    1. There was certainly no ball in the cannon. And I've heard conflicting stories about the 1911 escape. Some say the police stepped in and refused to allow it to be lit. I've also heard it was lit but there was no powder charge. And that HH reached back and pulled the fuse out.

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    2. But I also wonder if some of these stories actually come from one of these 1919 escapes?

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    3. You mean the tempo 1919 cannon escapes inspired the possible fake 1911 escape?

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    4. Not sure what you're asking. I just meant some of the various stories that are told about the cannon escape and assumed to be about the 1911 escape (because it was the only known) may have actually happened during the 1919 escapes.

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    5. BTW--I use my Kindle all the time these days instead of my laptop for the web. It will substitute words while I type replies. The word "tempo" in my reply was typed as "two" but switched out before I could catch it.

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    6. Ah, understood. Does the Kindle show you the full site, or the mobile interface? I've never see this site on a Kindle.

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  2. Great discovery about the Canon escapes. I like your theory about the Canon photo. I never realized that wheel was attached to a Canon. I just thought it was a wagon wheel leaning against a barn.

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    1. What I didn't realize until I looked closely is this isn't some quaint old cannon. In 1919 that is a modern piece of warfare. Did these even have fuses? I don't think so. I think that's what meant by "the explosion being accepted". It would be an order to fire after 10 mins?

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    2. Good point. Could be wrong but I would think it used large shells with a firing pin mechanism. The soldier would pull a trigger attached to a line or rope.

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  3. Fantastic work finding Los Angeles Papers and that he performed it multiple times; Prior to this, we only had the October 12, 1919 Washington Times paper account which reported he extricated himself from the ropes, which had taken six minutes to tie, in exactly two minutes and a half.: http://harryhoudinicircumstantialevidence.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/seq-14b.pdf
    Oddly enough, in addition to the 1911 and 1919 Challenges, there is also a Chatham 1910 reference in Taits British Tour book: “It’s recorded that Houdini was chained to a cannon in Chatham Town Square in 1910. The exact date isn’t known but there seems time between his shows at Kilburn and Poplar for it to have taken place. The cannon had a 15 minute fuse but Houdini managed to escape in 6 minutes. The canon turned out not to be loaded!”

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    1. Chatham in 1910? The 1911 escape was in Chatham. Maybe Derek has that wrong, or maybe he did the escape in Chatham more than once? They might have had a very suitable cannon.

      Good work on the Washington Times article! You know, that sounds like something out of a pressbook. I didn't think to check The Grim Game pressbook for this.

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    2. Son of a gun. It IS in the pressbook! I've updated.

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  4. Thanks for this really interesting information. I'm trying to wrap my head around what it was that the artist was depicting in the cartoon above. It looks like the rifle is wedged through and under Houdini's arms to hold him back, with his hands tied in front, but the ropes don't seem to go over the rifle to hold him to the cannon, if that's what was intended. Or maybe he couldn't see clearly, or it was just an imagined recreation. I remember the cartoon but don't think I ever looked closely before. So interesting in any case.

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    1. How HH is going to be tied to the cannon with the rifle behind his back is pretty well described in the challenge itself. I guessing that's what the illustration is based on. The TNT movie and the Brodini Abomination (which is what I now call the 2014 miniseries :p) do a pretty good job of recreating the tie.

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  5. Updated with a photo of the Victory Ship stage! Thanks to Bill Mullins.

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